Identifying Our Best Candidate for Nephi's Bountiful
Identifying Our Best Candidate for Nephi’s Bountiful
Warren P. Aston
Editorial Note: This article is a response to Richard Wellington and George Potter, “Lehi’s Trail: From the Valley of Lemuel to Nephi’s Harbor, ” JBMS 15/2 (2006): 26-43, and W. Revell Phillips, “Mughsayl: Another Candidate for Land Bountiful,” JBMS 16/2 (2007): 48-59.
Publication of issue 15/2 of the Journal of Book of Mormon
Studies was a landmark event in Old
World studies of the Book of Mormon. Encouragingly, it illustrates what Daniel
McKinlay’s article calls the “brightening light” being shed on Lehi
and Sariah’s odyssey. Just thirty years ago the most optimistic of us could not
have imagined how much of that journey can now be plausibly situated in the
Researchers generally agree
that Nephi’s Bountiful must lie somewhere on the fertile southern coast of
Oman, which stretches a short distance into Yemen. Wellington and Potter
discuss the most promising specific locations identified to date: Khor (inlet)
Rori and Khor Kharfot. W. Revell Phillips proposes a third possibility, Khor
Mughsayl, which lies between the other two.1
Having explored the entire east coast of Yemen and Oman, I
could claim, I suppose, that at some stage I must certainly have been in the
original Bountiful. However, at no time since completing that survey in 1992
have I ever claimed that any particular location was Bountiful. My interest
remains what it has always been—to demonstrate that the Book of Mormon’s
claimed origins are completely plausible. I have no expectation
that research will ever demonstrate more than that.
The Book of Mormon deserves to be understood using the best
data available. We need to bring accuracy and clarity to our studies,
especially when discussing geography, because most Church members rely on others
for information of distant places. Nephi’s account is far more sophisticated
and informative than it first appears, and if we ignore its plain statements
the waters are indeed muddied.
Journal articles have already made arguments for each
viewpoint concerning the Lehite journey, and they need not be repeated.
However, where factual errors exist, as I believe they do in these
articles, they must be pointed out. I offer the following corrections toward
Nahom, Ishmael’s burial place, also marked the major change
in travel direction in the journey to Bountiful (see 1 Nephi 17:1). Although
the discovery of the Bar’an altar texts means that Nahom’s location is now
archaeologically attested, Wellington and Potter assert that there are no less
than five places in Yemen bearing the name (p. 32). Nihm, however, is a large (modern) administrative
area of northwest Yemen named after its principal tribe. It includes a large
chunk of desert land in the Wadi Jawf as well as a high plateau. Although
Wellington and Potter point out various sites bearing the name NHM (as well as variant spellings using the
consonants), it is a mistake to conclude that there are separate places called
NHM. They are all simply features of one tribal area—only one south
Arabian location has the name NHM.2
Wellington and Potter
also use a preliminary version of the altar text that incorrectly designates
the altar donor and his tribe as the “tribe Naw’, from Nihm” (p. 33).
The correct translation states that the donor was the son of Naw’um, who was of
is also confusing to state that the first altar was found at the “Bar’an
temple” and the second at the “Temple of the Moon Goddess” (p.
33), thus implying different locations. The authors do not mention the third
altar, but, in any event, all three were recovered at the same location—the
Ilmaqah temple of Bar’an at Marib. Finally, the dating given for the second
altar is incorrect: all the altars date between the seventh and sixth centuries BC.4
Access from Nahom
Wellington and Potter, as well as S. Kent Brown, posit a
route to Bountiful through Shisr, an oasis widely trumpeted some years ago as the
fabled lost city of Ubar. Archaeologist Juris Zarins, however, long ago backed
away from this claim,5 and other scholars remain convinced that there was
never any substantial overland trade route from Dhofar at any time.6 Although highly relevant, these revised and opposing scholarly viewpoints are
not noted by any of the authors.
Accounting for All Possibilities
Wellington and Potter make no attempt to assess all
possibilities for Bountiful. After stating that they visited nine inlets besides
Khor Rori (their candidate), the authors admit that the most westerly was only
six miles west of Salalah (p. 41). Driving only 20 minutes farther west would
have brought them to Mughsayl and, 90 minutes farther, to Wadi Sayq and Khor
Kharfot, all on paved roads. Yet they do not even consider Kharfot—demonstrably
the most fertile coastal location in Arabia—a candidate for Bountiful (p.
Bountiful was named for “its much fruit and also wild
honey” (1 Nephi 17:5 and again in v. 6). And, since the Lord led the
Lehites there primarily to build a ship, availability of suitable timber is
surely no small factor. However, the trees we would expect to see at Khor Rori
and at Mughsayl are nowhere to be found. These candidates thus lack the
fertility described by Nephi, and Wellington and Potter seem to downplay the
scriptural basis for the name Bountiful in several ways. First,
in a previous publication, they apparently used a green filter to enhance the
photo of a site.8 Next, they use a photo of an inland wadi (rather than of Khor Rori itself) to
suggest trees, vegetation, and wildlife (p. 43). They also maintain that the modern
plantations of such species as banana, coconut, mango, and papaya in Salalah
could account for the “much fruit” Nephi mentions. (Phillips argues
Unfortunately, most of these fruits are modern imports and
are not native to the area.9 In 21 years of visiting Salalah, I
have seen these irrigated plantations grow in size and variety. But Nephi’s
text must be approached from the perspectives of an ancient inhabitant of
Jerusalem concluding a long, difficult desert journey. “Much fruit”
does not necessarily require the great variety of modern, colorful
species found in the local supermarket. Moreover, anyone visiting Khor Kharfot
today can indeed see “much fruit” still growing wild: an abundance of
figs, one of the most important ancient fruits in the Near East, with
tamarinds, dates, and a variety of edible nuts, berries, and vegetables. I
therefore believe that repeated assertions that only Salalah is fertile
(Phillips, pp. 53, 55) are not accurate. Indeed, I continue to maintain that
Kharfot is the most naturally fertile location on the eastern Arabian
Timber for Nephi’s Ship
All three authors claim that Nephi must have purchased
imported timber to construct his ship. Teak timber from India was used in
distant northern Oman since ancient times; however, the authors fail to mention
that there is no evidence of shipbuilding in southern Oman at any time.10 Phillips claims that Oman has no trees suitable for planking (p. 55), and
Wellington and Potter speculate that “Nephi would have needed to haul all
of these heavy imported goods [such as timber] to Khor Kharfot” (p. 42)
over the mountains from Salalah. This makes no sense given the timber trees
already extant at Kharfot. The authors ignore the extensive photography of tall
native hardwood trees and fruits growing at Kharfot, published in my 1994 book
and in my JBMS article, both of which they themselves reference. (See Wellington and Potter,
pp. 113–16 nn. 3, 49, 71, 111 and Phillips, p. 97 n. 2.)
In discussing Nephi’s preparation for a sea voyage,
Wellington and Potter examine the “maritime resources” needed,
defined by them as a harbor, materials and labor needed to build a ship, and “seamanship
skills” required to sail it. The authors reveal their approach in this quote: “Even
with the inspiration of the Lord, it was simply impossible for Nephi
to have sailed to the New World without training” (p. 42, emphasis added).
Thus, they have Nephi helped by local shipbuilders and taught by experienced
sailors who perhaps joined the crew.
Wellington and Potter intimate that because Khor Kharfot is
presently closed to the ocean by a sandbar, it cannot be Bountiful, although
they acknowledge that Khor Rori is also closed. They then state that Kharfot, a
place I know intimately, is “very narrow and the floor is strewn with huge
boulders” (p. 42). Phillips also speaks about the Kharfot inlet as the
smallest of the three sites, although he does not explain why that would be
significant. Such claims make no sense to me. Kharfot’s inlet is not strewn with huge boulders; its width of a hundred or so feet is surely adequate
to maneuver a ship, and its depth of about 30 feet is plenty for even a deep
draft. Additionally, most of these assumptions fail if a raft-style craft were
built rather than a conventional ship, a point that Phillips recognizes (p.
56). Wellington and Potter summarize their candidate’s strength as being “the
only established large port in Dhofar in Nephi’s time.” (p. 43). They do
not, however, discuss the fact that Khor Rori is believed not to have been a
port in Nephi’s day, which would invalidate their claims.11
Readers must decide if these assertions find any echoes in
Nephi’s straightforward account telling us that his brothers worked with
him, in a place almost certainly uninhabited,12 that
he was instructed of the Lord often, that he neither worked the timbers nor
built his vessel “after the manner of men,” and that he was directionally
and spiritually led by the Liahona (1 Nephi 18:2; see also 1 Nephi 17:7, 8;
18:1–4, 12, 21–22).13
Nephi’s Mount and Coastal Access
Although Khor Rori lacks a mount where Nephi could have
prayed “oft” (1 Nephi 18:3), Wellington and Potter claim that the “slopes
of the highest peak in southern Oman are only two miles to the north” (p.
37). This is misleading because Mount Samhan is actually more than 25 miles
distant and is not even visible from the Khor Rori area,14 requiring Nephi to walk 50-plus miles round-trip to pray often (“in the mountain” incidentally, not merely on a distant slope—see 1
Nephi 17: 7; 18:3).
In rejecting Kharfot as the possible site of Bountiful,
Phillips claims that it “has truly difficult access from the interior,”
with “huge boulders and vegetation that block the canyon floor” (p.
55) of Wadi Sayq (“River Valley”), which leads from the interior
desert. While it is true that Latter-day Saint tour groups wishing to see all
Bountiful possibilities reach Kharfot by sea simply because it is easier than
going by land, walking in to Kharfot is nevertheless quite possible. I have
done so several times. Even after the 2600-plus monsoonal floods that have
occurred since Lehi’s time, choke-points of accumulated boulders and abundant
vegetation do not deter exploration by serious researchers any more than they
would have turned away a prophet-led group long ago.
I believe the most accurate comparison of the three inlets
in Nephi’s day is as follows:
Khor Rori was well populated at the beginning of the
incense trade, thus offering a source of local labor, but likely lacking fruit
and certainly lacking a nearby mountain. Shipbuilding timber would have to have
been imported from elsewhere.
Khor Mughsayl likely had at least a small population
and may have been involved in the trade routes. It has small, nearby hills, but
lacks both fruit and timber, which would have to have been imported from elsewhere.
Khor Kharfot was removed from the trade route and thus
almost certainly unpopulated. Timber trees and wild fruit grow near the
sea, and a distinct mountain overlooks the bay. It remains the most fertile
coastal location in Arabia.
No reader should feel that errors or differences in opinion
in any way diminish the significance of what has been found in Arabia; such
differences are to be expected in any scholarly effort. One can even see that several locations
(all within a few miles of each other) being proposed as Bountiful actually
strengthens the Book of Mormon’s claims. None of these places was known in
Joseph Smith’s 1829 environment; indeed, we are only now investigating them
with the tools of science.
I leave the final word with the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Writing in 1844 of evidences for the work restored through him, he stated that
their truth would be made manifest by “proving contraries.”15 As we
sift sometimes contrary but always factual data into the future,
indications of the Book of Mormon’s divine origin will continue to unfold.
of Phillips’ forthcoming article, I made another extended examination of
Mughsayl for two days in February 2008 to ensure that I had not overlooked
anything with respect to its qualities as a candidate for Bountiful. I found
least one of the four “new” locations listed is merely a
colloquialism: Jabal Naham (“Mt. Naham”) is actually Mt. Harim,
located in the Nihm tribal area next to Mele, the ancient capital of Nihm.
Because the mountain lies within the NHM area, local people can quite easily
refer to it as Mt. NHM, and that name can find its way onto a map. Arabian
mapping in some areas, including Yemen, is
notoriously inconsistent and often hard to follow. The bottom line, however, is
that the name NHM is found only once in southern Arabia, even though a
mountain, a valley, and a hill within the area also have NHM in their name,
formal or otherwise. The site of Provo offers a useful analogy: even though
people speak of Provo Canyon, the Provo River, Provo city, and the Provo
cemetery, for example, there is still only one place called Provo, not several.
P. Aston, “Newly Found Altars from Nahom,” JBMS 10/2 (2001):
du monde arabe, Yémen au pays de la reine de Saba< (Paris: Flammarion, 1997), 144. The editor of the volume, Christian Robin, is a
professional archaeologist who has dated the temple site and altars to between
the seventh and sixth centuries BC.
I therefore believe that Yusuf Abdullah, the
source cited by Wellington and Potter (p. 114 n. 41), is either mistaken or
misquoted—or perhaps simply generalizing—in mentioning the seventh or eighth
eventually concluded that Shisr does not represent Ubar. See
his “Atlantis of the Sands” in Archaeology 50/3 (1997):
51–53. In his more recent “Environmental Disruption and Human
Response,” in Environmental Disaster and the Archaeology of Human Response,
Anthropological Papers, ed. Garth Bawden and Richard M. Reycraft (Albuquerque:
Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, University of New Mexico, 2000), 7:35–49,
Zarins suggests that modern Habarut may be Ubar.
H. Stewart Edgell contends that Ubar is essentially
mythical and makes arguments against any significant historical role for Shisr
beyond that of a small caravansary. See “The Myth of the ‘Lost City of the
Arabian Sands'” in Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies (2004),
carefully reasoned examinations of the issues involved, see Nigel Groom’s “Oman
and the Emirates in Ptolemy’s Map,” in Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 5
(1994): 198–214, and “ ’The Road to Ubar’—Pros
and Cons,” in Bulletin of the Society for Arabian Studies 5 (2000):
42–43. Groom concludes that the Shisr site provides no new evidence of
overland trade routes from Dhofar.
an aside, this is somewhat ironic because I examined Khor Rori on my first
visit to Oman in 1987 and was unable to reconcile it with Nephi’s description.
Seeing the site triggered my ground survey of the entire eastern Arabian coast
made from 1988 to 1992. Khor Kharfot is the last remnant of deciduous tropical
woodland remaining in Oman. It’s unique fertility drew the attention of
botanists years before any Latter-day Saint knew of the site. See Anthony
Miller and Miranda Morris, “The Scientific Results of the Oman Flora and
Fauna Survey—1977 (Dhofar)” in Journal of Oman Studies (Muscat:
Ministry of National Heritage & Culture, 1980): Special Report 2, which
includes photography of Kharfot.
rocks look green in some pictures. See especially the picture of Khor Rori
lagoon in Potter and Wellington, Lehi in the Wilderness (Springville,
UT: Cedar Fort, 2003), 131.
Shahina Ghazanfar, A Vernacular Index of the Plants of Oman (Muscat,
Oman: Al Roya, 2001), which documents native flora. Dr. Ghazanfar is an Omani
national currently serving as a curator at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew,
Alessandra Avanzini, ed., A Port in Arabia between Rome and the Indian Ocean (3rd C. BC – 5th C. AD): Khor Rori Report 2 (Rome:
L’Erma di Bretschneider, 2008). This title reflects the archaeological team’s
firm dating—and the team has worked at Khor Rori since 1997.
Rori Report 2. Additionally, Juris Zarins notes in his seminal The Land of
Incense: Archaeological Work in the Governorate of Dhofar,
Sultanate of Oman, 1990–1995 (Muscat, Oman: Sultan Qaboos
University, 2001), 134, that Dhofar graffiti depicting ships may simply record
observations of passing ships. He also notes that, in any case, the graffiti
likely dates no earlier than 300 BC.
briefly outline my position in my article “Across Arabia with Lehi and
Sariah: ‘Truth Shall Spring out of the Earth,’ ” JBMS 15/2 (2006): 8–25.
have often neglected the significance of the sacred “writing”
appearing on the Liahona from time to time (see 1 Nephi 16:27–29),
something that was separate from the directions indicated by the pointers.
Samhan is situated at 17° 24′ N and 54° 53′ E and Khor Rori at 17° 2′ N and 54°
27′ E, separated by a distance of more than 25 miles in a straight line. Of
course, the distance would be considerably farther when walking and climbing.
15. History of
the Church, 6:428.